vienna trip.

•July 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

austria

A few weeks ago I turned 28. That means I’m entering my 29th year. That means I’m almost 30! Ack!

I realized shortly before my birthday that actually, I have not traveled much outside of Switzerland since arriving here. I suppose my masters was so travel-heavy that I was facing exploration-exhaustion by the time I started my PhD. So I went to Sweden for World Championships for a few days, to Tenerife for vacation, and that was it for my first nine months living in central Europe.

I think I was ready to rebegin. So I booked a plane ticket to Vienna, a city I had never been to and, frankly, didn’t have as many ideas about as probably I should have. I don’t remember much about the Austro-Hungarian empire from my middle-school history classes (and we certainly didn’t learn about them in high school, where history was hands-down the worst department of them all), and I had very little 20th-century history either. I guess the most I knew about Vienna came through music; after all, I played classical piano.

Unfortunately the 4th-of-July weekend in central Europe was smack in the middle of this horrendous heat wave, which is possibly the worst in the last 150 years depending on where you look. In Switzerland I think it’s still slightly behind the 2003 wave, but close; in Germany, the highest temperature ever recorded in the country was measured in Kitzingen.

So I didn’t end up spending a lot of time outside in Vienna. But a lot of time in museums with air conditioning. Here are some highlights of the trip.

1. Friedensreich Hundertwasser

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One of my favorite discoveries is something I wouldn’t have even known about if my friend Knut, who had spent a month living in Vienna this spring, hadn’t told me to look for it. Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an architect and artist, and several of his biggest public projects are in Vienna. Technically, he lived in Vienna most of his life, but the guy’s itinerary went around the world multiple times!

Above is the city’s hot water heating plant, designed by Hundertwasser. Imagine going to work there every day. Pretty cool. It was the first Hundertwasser site I saw, and I was hooked.

Later I went to the Hundertwasser museum, called the Kunst Haus Wien, housed in a building he designed with lots of tile and old planks on the floor and some trees growing inside. I saw some of the other art, including very, very cool paintings and prints. So much color, working with gold leaf, working creatively. Hundertwasser had a philosophy of sustainability and world peace through every part of life. That comes through in his art.

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One of the first things I saw in the museum was a large poster. On one side was a tall photo of Hundertwasser: 1928-2000. On the other side was a photo of a tree: Hundertwasser 2000-2015. The artist was buried on his land in New Zealand and a tree was planted over his body. That tree grows on. It’s not a completely original idea, but it was so forceful to see the tree and the man placed right next to each other that it nearly bowled me over in its poeticism.

You can learn more about Hundertwasser on this website.

2. The Natural History Museum

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The Habsburg empire included a lot of men (and some women) who were extremely interested in science. As the empire grew, samples of plants, animals, and fossils were sent back to Europe; Austrians also explored by sea and land as the worldview of Europeans expanded. The collection in Vienna is, well, extensive. It encompasses more than 30 million objects.

In all science museums, the collection is actually much larger than what can be displayed. That’s of course true of Vienna’s natural history museum as well. But they do have a huge, ornate building to house the collection in, purpose-built to show off Austria’s treasures.

My housemate Geri suggested that I visit the museum, saying she could spend “days” there. I could as well. It was awesome. A few small notes, not necessarily my favorite things that I saw, but cute ones that photographed well:

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In a collection about the history of the Austrian university research system, there was a display of models of ocean creatures made out of glass. Yes, that’s right, glass. A team of incredibly talented glassblowers capitalized on the fact that translucent organisms don’t always look that cool when stored in alcohol, can’t be dried, and can be hard to draw. The results are incredible – and also accurate and informative.

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Finally, I always love the connection between birds and dinosaurs. It’s a fun one to make. Glad the curators capitalized on this. In the same exhibition room were some dinosaur fossils and skeletons and an animatronic dinosaur! Here’s a video (not by me).

3. A Special Exhibition. Also in the museum was a special exhibition of large-format black and white photographs of bison. Taken by Heidi and Hans-Jurgen Koch, a pair of German artist/photographers, they were paired with text and it was a revelation. At first it was strange to look and think about buffalo and learn from a pair of people who didn’t grow up with the same legends of the American west as I did. Can they possibly really get it? I was almost offended. But on the other hand, skipping some of the mythicism and the rewriting of history that always happens in our educational system. It was an amazing display.

You can see some of the photos in an online gallery from Der Spiegel. Although there’s something missing when you’re not looking at gorgeous prints in the flesh, so to speak, they are amazing.

You can buy the book of their work, called Buffalo Ballads, on Amazon. (It’s also at Powell’s, which I usually recommend, but it’s on backorder there. Still, here’s the page)

4. The Leopold. I went to a lot of museums. I really enjoyed the Leopold, which focuses in particular on Egon Schiele, an artist I was not familiar with. I liked his work, and also particularly liked the way it was presented: with lots and lots of context. The museum is based on an extensive private collection, and the building was built fairly recently so there’s lots of space. There are displays of Schiele’s personal correspondence, photos of different places he had lived, and information about his relationships and the culture in Vienna at the time.

Learn more about Schiele here.

There’s some other nice art from the early 20th century as well.

5. The Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum)

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Just across the park from the natural history museum is an identical building which houses much of the Habsburgs’ art. The paintings are great; the architecture is amazing.

I spent more time, though, wandering around the Kunstkammer, rooms that housed collections of objects owned by the Hapsburgs. Some of it was straight-up art, procured by the royals or gifted to them. But a lot were not paintings. The top photo here is a calculator! A calculator. As mentioned, the Habsburgs really liked science, technology, and progress. There’s a great collection of clocks, navigational tools, and other nifty things. All gold-plated, of course.

And lots of dishes, table ornaments, jewelery, and other stuff. As I walked around, I kept thinking, wow. Those Habsburgs though.

6. Belvedere

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That feeling only continued when I went to the Belvedere Palace. Crazy, they were.

Also I really enjoyed the Gustav Klimt exhibit there, although I wish there had been more of it. It was advertised all over Vienna as “KLIMT AT THE BELVEDERE!” !!! WOOWW OMG !!!! But… I wanted it to keep going.

7. Wiener Schitzel. There’s much good Wiener schitzel to be had in Vienna. Have some. I found mine at Finkh, a great restaurant in an off-the-path location. I recommend it: besides the great schnitzel, I had a great seasonal summer salad with halloumi cheese and avocado, and they also had Augustiner beer, my favorite from Munich! I didn’t even need a reservation, even though it’s a small restaurant which was written up in the New York Times.

8. Running to the Danube

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It was hot as hell. I didn’t run for the first two days I was there. On the last day, I steeled myself to do it. A canal runs through (ish) Vienna, but I really wanted to see the Danube River itself. So I ran a few kilometers out of the city to have a look. It was cool. There are nice paths along the canal to run or bike or rollerskate (yup, saw some of that).

9. Karl Marx Hof

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I started this list with some architecture, so I might as well end it with some, too. I went to take a look at the Karl Marx Hof, a massive socialist housing project from the 1930s. Seeing a few photos online, I wasn’t expecting to find it very interesting. After all, the idea of living in a building that stretches several blocks, continuously, all connected, gives me feelings of physical revulsion. I’m a country girl! That’s not my style!

But actually, the project was really cool. The interior parks and courts would be lovely places to spend time, and the people living in apartments had really embraced what could have been quite a sterile space. It seemed organic and quirky in a way that you would never expect if you looked only at the architectural plans.

female bodies in motion.

•July 15, 2015 • 3 Comments

The New York Times recently ran an article about body image in female athletes. Its title: “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition“.

I hated it from the start. I know a lot of female athletes, and I can’t think of a discussion I have ever had with any of them about balancing body image with ambition. Do they have ambition? Yes. Do they have issues with body image? Sometimes. But never have I heard an elite athlete say that they were not doing x thing that would probably make them more competitive, because it would make them feel less attractive or less feminine. Ambition and insecurity can coexist. After all, humans are complex.

The article got a lot of hate immediately, mostly because it focused particularly on Serena Williams. Williams is the greatest female player currently on tour, and likely of all time. She’s also incredibly strong. Throughout her career, people have labeled her as a big scary black woman. I am not actually a huge Serena fan, but regardless of whether you are a fangirl or not, it’s plain to see that the racism she has faced is atrocious.

(And besides, she’s not that big. Look at a picture of her off the tennis court and see if you can even tell what all the fuss is about.)

I’m not going to talk about how race was featured in the most recent NYT article. Others have done that much more intelligently and eloquently than I possibly could. Here’s a few examples: Huffington Post; A Tribe Called News; The Daily Beast; I am sure there are other better essays, too.

At first, I couldn’t even articulate why the article disgusted me so much, but the general reason was that I thought it was extremely unfair and disrespectful of female athletes. An article about conforming to conventional standards of attractiveness would very seldom be written about male athletes.

After mulling it over, I’ve come up with some more concrete and specific reasons that I was so enraged by the author’s treatment of female athletes. Here’s a rundown.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All. First of all, the article implies that any female tennis player could have a body like Serena’s if she wanted to. That isn’t true… at least not without performance-enhancing drugs. Some of us put on weight and muscle more easily, while others do not.

This is not to say that Serena didn’t achieve her physique by a lot of hard work (although she’s quoted as saying that it is simply her body type, and she doesn’t lift weights). But for some people – men and women, not just white female tennis players! – a body like that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve naturally, without being a full-time job requiring major cuts to other training time, and might even result in injury. Not to mention, making drastic changes to one’s body requires parallel changes in technique/skill at the same time in order to be able to take advantage of added power.

Furthermore, it might not even be a good idea.

There is more than one way to be an excellent athlete, more than one body type you can have. I read and loved David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene, and in it he writes about how certain length ratios or body attributes are more or less required to be the best at certain sports. He’s not wrong.

And yet… take a look at this image, from the women’s 800 meter run at the 2012 London Olympics. None of these women have a lot of fat on their bodies. The are all lean, but with varying amounts of muscle.

I saw at least one person on twitter draw a parallel to my sport, cross-country skiing. One commenter said that in multiple sports women are now winning “with more strength” and showed a picture of Marit Bjørgen. Yep, she’s strong. But the second-best woman in the world, Therese Johaug, is tiny. Muscular, but much tinier. And some days, she kicks Marit’s ass. Here’s a picture of them running together; here’s a picture of them skiing together. Nobody’s saying that it’s impossible to be the best skier without having Bjørgen’s body, or that Johaug is a copout for not trying.

Like Williams, Bjørgen is not as big as she’s made out to be. Having met her in person, she’s still small – something that people lose track of when watching sports on television because the focus is always to fill the same, making tall and short people sometimes seem the same size. I bet she weighs less than I do.

Agnieszka Radwanska’s coach said in the NYT article that “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10.” That may very well be because her play is adapted to being light. She’s one of the ten best tennis players in the world, right? Should we really be questioning her decisions about her body composition? It obviously works!

Correlation, Not Causation. I’m impressed that the author got as many top athletes to talk, on the record, about their insecurities with their bodies. I remember another article published in NYT, at the Sochi Olympics, about biathlon’s penalty loop. I thought it was a great article. It had a different author, but I imagine the strategy was the same: go to a lot of top athletes and ask them the same relatively short set of questions about a single topic. See what interesting responses you get.

I’m not surprised that female athletes have body image challenges. Every woman does. The standards we are held to by the media, advertising, and entertainment industries are ridiculous. It’s hard not to end up ashamed of some part(s) of your body.

But just because some of the women said this much, does not mean that the reason they are not bigger and bulkier is in fact because of those insecurities. For instance: Maria Sharapova, who was quoted as saying she doesn’t like the gym and doesn’t want to be bigger, also said that “for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.”

Sharapova is currently the second-ranked woman on the tennis tour. She has multiple Grand Slam victories. She talks about wanting to be slim and wishing she had less cellulite; she also talks about how it’s not necessary for her to gain more muscle for competition. Why focus only on the former? Why not also the latter?

In fact, the only person in the article quoted as directly linking weight/muscle with femininity is Radwanska’s coach, who said that he wants to keep Radwanska “a woman”. Ouch.

It wasn’t Radwanska herself who said it. No, Radwanska noted that gaining muscle might hurt her speed, and anyway that would be tough to do: “I also have the genes where I don’t know what I have to do to get bigger, because it’s just not going anywhere.”

So, did the players even make this connection between wanting to be feminine and being unable to beat Serena? Or did the author take quotes about body image, and tie them into a piece about how nobody is trying to be like Serena? I am genuinely curious what the reaction of the quoted athletes is to this piece, and whether they feel like they were misrepresented.

And, also, the newspaper didn’t treat these insecurities with very much respect. A German player, Andrea Petkovic, confided that she hates seeing photos of herself hitting two-handed backhands because she thinks her arms look so sinewy and grotesque. The NYT helpfully printed just such a photo below the quote.

(Petkovic was not quoted as saying anything about whether she is still trying to add muscle or not, and if not, why not. She only commented on her current body image and insecurities.)

The Steroid Era, And The Current Era. This is really a side note but… the article seems to frame Serena’s body as something new and crazy in women’s sports, that other women are just too scared to emulate. Newsflash: we have seen big, muscle-bound women before. It was called the steroid era. Does nobody remember the East Germans? The Soviets? Heck, the Americans? Then, stronger anti-doping policy and improved testing came along. Athletes slimmed down again to some extent.

But only to some extent. Currently many track and field athletes, of all races and ethnicities, are bulked up. In some cases (maybe in a lot of cases, depending on how cynical you are) this is because of doping. In some cases it’s because of hard work. Serena is not the only successful female athlete out there with a lot of muscle. She’s not an alien, she’s not a revelation (well, she’s a revelation on the tennis court though!). Why are we talking about this again?

Disrespect for Serena’s Other Strengths. This ties more into the racism issues that have been brought up around this article, but it’s worth noting that it’s not merely muscle that wins Williams titles. It’s her tennis game. She has had periods where she is less fit; typically she does not win as consistently then. Her fitness, skills, and, perhaps above all, her incredible mental strength, also power her to wins. A physically strong Serena without the mental edge doesn’t win.

Body is not the only thing that makes an athlete. Just because people like to ogle women’s bodies, let’s not forget that when we talk about female athletes. Women have to have the complete package to the same extent that male athletes do.

Lack of Dedication. Finally, and perhaps this is where I feel female athletes were most disrespected, by framing the issue in this way – that any female athlete could achieve Serena’s body type if she wanted, but most choose not to – it paints those “other” athletes as less dedicated or less hard-working. They are skipping gym time because they don’t want to be too muscle-bound, and the author implies that they are lazy. There’s an unflattering quote from Maria Sharapova saying that she hates lifting and it’s hard work.

But time in the gym is not the only kind of training there is. I can’t speak for every single athlete, of course, but I’m certain that most of the women quoted, and in fact most on the women’s tennis tour, train just as much and just as hard as Serena. They just might not do it in the gym. There are multiple ways to get good. Some might do more cardio work; others speed workouts or agility and footwork; still others might spend even more hours on court perfecting their skills.

Writing that they choose not to lift weights because they want to remain feminine is not only wrong for all of the reasons listed above, but makes women seem lazy instead of pointing out that rather than going to the spa in that extra time, they likely sink it into some other form of training.

Wrapping up… Back to the issue of why we are even talking about female athletes’ bodies. The NYT editorial staff backpedaled the article hard, with an opinion piece by the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, stating that she was concerned with the piece.

It contained this nugget:

“Well aware of the criticism, Mr. Stallman said he still found the topic worthwhile: ‘In covering sports, we can’t not write about women’s bodies.’ And, he said, male athletes come in for scrutiny, too, citing a front-page article just last week on Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon, focused on his 285-pound body, up about 100 pounds from 1997 when he joined the major leagues.”

Um…. two things here. Is it unfortunate that Colón (and speaking of being sensitive, there NYT, I added the accent back on his name for you) is being shamed for being a large man on the front page of a newspaper? Yes. If Colón is good at baseball, then his weight shouldn’t matter to his team. And outside of people who are paying him a salary to be an excellent athlete, it shouldn’t matter to the universe in general if Colón is a gaining weight.

But… weighing 285 pounds is a little different than being Serena Williams, who is an extremely cut, lean, muscular woman. Criticizing a baseball player for being fat when, actually, he is fat (there, I said it) is totally different than calling a lean, muscular athlete “too big”.

And furthermore, the Colon article is an outlier. Women’s bodies face far more scrutiny and discussion in the sports media than men’s bodies do. Citing one article about Bartolo Colón does not change that.

And secondly, oh really? We can’t not write about women’s bodies? Is that so?

I revisited the article that the NYT wrote about the Women’s World Cup final: the most-watched soccer game, men’s or women’s, ever in the United States, and likely one of the top 30 or so most-watched sporting events of the year. So, a big deal.

It did not contain a single description of the bodies of any of the U.S. or Japanese players. (It did contain a reference to the iconic Brandi Chastain photo from the 1999 World Cup).

Instead, it described what those bodies did. One body sliced a shot, ran onto a pass, and launched a shot. Another backpedaled and reached.

This is how we should talk about female athletes’ bodies.

braunwald hike.

•June 28, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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It has been a little while. Sorry. Oops. I’ve been busy, but when am I ever not? Sometimes I still find the time to write. Other times I don’t. I guess this was one of the “don’t”s.

Let’s see. I was doing fieldwork and lab experiments, for one thing. I also went to Lausanne to cover the International Olympic Committee meetings and candidate city presentations by Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China, each of whom want to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It was quite the experience in a lot of ways and I think it might shape how I approach reporting in the future.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was being a bit more editorial. IOC-speak is cloaked in code and references. I felt that in order to convey any information at all, I had to decode that PR-speak for my readers. That meant a lot of contextualizing. So I figured, why not go for it? And I threw in some opining as well. Here are a few of the results:

Six Big Problems With the Beijing 2022 Olympic Bid

By Severing Ties, Bach Kills SportAccord; IOC Carries Full Weight of Sport’s Future & Reform

Almaty 2022 Bid Fights Back; A Games With Real Snow Still Possible

On the whole, the new approach seemed to be enjoyed by readers. But now it’s back to “normal” FasterSkier operations. And more importantly, normal PhD operations. I spend 4 or more hours a day, every other day, counting amphipods in the basement laboratory where there is not even a window for sunlight. On one hand, this is nice, as my office has no cooling system and it can get pretty hot in there. In the basement? No problem. On the other hand, though, we are finally having some nice summer weather and I’m trapped in a basement.

There had been a lot going on, so I decided to take this weekend truly to recover. On Saturday I went for a long rollerski, which tired me out so much I had to take a nap. Sunday I reserved for hiking. I had been trying to fit in a hike the previous two weekends, but the weather just didn’t cooperate. Finally, I had my window.

I took the train out of Zürich and up the Glarus valley almost all the way to Linthal. Taking the train to go hiking on Sundays reminds me of one reason that I love Switzerland.

The train is full: young people, old people. Rich (ish) people, poor (ish) people. People with walking sticks, people with babies in backpacks. Thin people, chubby people, people with knee replacements. People with husbands, people with school friends. Every kind of person is on the train. The things that unite them are their hiking boots and their Mammut expedition pants that probably zip off into shorts.

At each stop up the Glarus valley, a handful or two of people get off the train, backpacks slung over their shoulders and a bright look in their eyes (unless they are teenagers with their parents, then they still look sullen). There are dozens of different trails to explore. And the Swiss explore them.

I’m not sure that I have ever, in the U.S., felt this sense of community and solidarity between people going to do something outdoors. For one thing, we all drive our cars because public transport generally doesn’t even go to the places we want to get to. So as we hurtle towards our day’s adventure, we are insulated from all but our closest friends or family. But for another thing, rarely in the U.S. does such a large cross section of society all end up hiking on the same trail system, exchanging very quiet pleasantries (maximum, three words) as they pass each other.

I finally got off at Linthal Braunwaldbahn, the second-to-last stop on the Linthal line. An especially large number of people got off here too. They were waiting for the Braunwaldbahn, a funicular that runs up the steep mountainside to the village of Braunwald, perched on a plateau above the valley and inaccessible to cars.

No cars!

pure nature – no cars – real winter” is one of their slogans. I love it.

I did not take the funicular, instead hiking up about two and a half kilometers of steep but thankfully shady forest trail.

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Then I came to Braunwald, which wasn’t really what I was expecting. The community is quite large – a lot of summer and winter vacation homes and a few farms scattered across the plateau. (Wikipedia lists the population as 308, which okay, is not a lot, but it’s still at least 200 more than I would have guessed…) Limited electricity; lots of solar panels. There were horse-drawn wagons, street signs, gardens. There were ski lifts criss-crossing everywhere. There were a lot of people and lot of potted plants flowering along the streets.

I walked from the top of the funicular up through the houses and towards the top of one of the ski lifts, which thankfully wasn’t running in the summer (others are). I began to leave people behind, more or less, and it began to get quieter. Okay, so maybe this wasn’t the place to find solitude, but I re-evaluated. This wasn’t bad.

And if you wanted to have a farm, why not have it here? The Swiss government will subsidize you for your hardship.

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At the top of the ski lift, I found a crowd eating at the restaurant, but I also found the Panoramaweg, a nine-kilometer loop trail which was actually what I had come for. After hiking up five kilometers and probably 3,000 feet, I finally got to the “start” of my hike.

It was incredible. It was quieter – I probably saw as many cows as people, although still more people than I would have expected – and for a long time I was primarily jutting through forest, spotting the snowy mountains across the valley every time there was a meadow opening. But then I turned a corner and caught my breath: an amazing peak was just before me.

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The next few kilometers of the loop were simply spectacular, surrounded by amazing views at every turn.

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Seriously, get a look at the cool geometry of that geology.

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I didn’t know much about Canton Glarus before moving to Zürich. I was snobby. I thought of Graubünden, home of Davos and the Engadin and Lenzerheide and most of all haunts from 2013, was the best thing ever. I’m not saying it’s not. But besides the mountains that I got to see close up today, there was simply a dizzying array of peaks receding into the background. It felt so good to be in the mountains today, up high, breathing cool air with a breeze drying out my sweaty shirt.

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Also, the trail itself was pretty cool. At one point it went into a tunnel. Who, when building a hiking trail, says “it would be easier to just hollow out this huge unavoidable rock instead of going around it”? The Swiss, that’s who!

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(This is just the beginning of the tunnel, with one gallery/window opening you can see. It actually wraps around the the left with two more windows chiseled in, and complete with a dank interior and water dripping from the ceiling.)

After making my loop and then hiking back down the super-steep forest access trail, I arrived just in time to catch the train back to Zürich. Perfect.

I’m tired, but I feel a little more ready to tackle the week after clearing my head with 4,000 feet of climbing and a lot of great scenery.

The message of today’s experience? “People live/hike here” doesn’t necessarily mean that, sans solitude, it can’t be a great place to go. All those people wanted to hike Braunwald for a reason. It was a pretty worthwhile reason, turns out.

jura jaunt.

•May 17, 2015 • 1 Comment

IMGP7392On Saturday I went with my friend Timothée on one of the first hiking adventures of the year. There’s still enough snow in the mountains to make a non-extreme form of hiking inconvenient, so we decided to use the opportunity to go to a lower-lying part of Switzerland that, frankly, we always have both just ignored. I’m always lured by the high mountains and the Alps. Instead, we took the train across the country to the French-speaking part, past Neuchâtel, and into the Jura.

Getting off the train in Noiraigue, our first target was the Creux du Van, an amazing geologic feature. We hiked up about five kilometers and 700 meters – it was fairly steep, but pleasant and hikeable – before we caught our first glimpse of the cliffs through the trees. Eek!! Even cooler that we had expected…

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As we stopped to admire the view, we saw some other hikers pausing up ahead, looking at something… it turned out to be an ibex. Oh wait, there’s another one! And another!

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Seriously, these were the tamest ibex ever. Usually when you see one in Switzerland it is up on a ridge, and you can just see its silhouette, maybe especially if you have a scope. “I think I value those more,” Timothée said. I agree. But it was so cool to see some up close! They smell like sheep, which is to be expected. We got, like, ridiculously close.

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[Some research reveals that the ibex were introduced in 1965, and there are just 17, so maybe they have some inbreeding problems, and I guess they have become much more habituated to hikers and other humans than a more truly “wild” population would be…]

So, we walked on, after spending quite some time with our ibex friends. Each view of the cliffs seemed more amazing than the last. We stopped and ate lunch. Then we stopped and just sat in the grass. It. was. awesome! The cliff walls are 150 m high, and the circ itself is almost a kilometer and a half across. The scale is difficult to comprehend.

We had done some research online before going, and the photos seemed amazing. But in person it is so much more amazing. So think, when you see these: I would be blown away if I was there, because it’s 10x cooler than in even the best photo.

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The place is one of extreme power. You feel stronger being there. I also just felt stronger absorbing the sun… and the green… but mostly the wind, and watching the birds play in the air over the huge dropoff.

It was a nice place to hang out. Here’s Timothée trying to get a macro shot of a nice blue flower….

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I also felt at home. Things felt quite similar to New England: hard rock, green mixed deciduous and coniferous forests with lush understories. Aside from the circ itself, I felt like I could have been hiking in the White Mountains. I haven’t had that feeling in a long time, and it was a real comfort. It made me think about what exactly it is that I love about the Whites, which will always be my favorite playground.

Seriously, tell me this vista couldn’t be in New Hampshire:

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Only when you turned around would you realize that, indeed, you are most definitely in Switzerland.

Farming everywhere!

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After enjoying our sun and sky, we hiked down a steep and somewhat slippery path to the center/bottom of the circ. From there, we decided that instead of heading back to Noiraigue, we would continue down to the Areuse river. We heard there were some gorges there.

After hiking down through the beech forest – trail covered in brown leaves, again so familiar to me – all of a sudden we began to hear the water. We came upon the first of the gorges, which had a nice bridge below it to walk over and look up at the waterfall, which carved through a narrow slot canyon, wearing the hard rock away over geologic time.

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After finishing the first section of the gorges walk, we had the option to hop on a train, or keep going. I was pretty ambivalent about more flat walking, but felt lame stopping… so we kept going. and were not disappointed. The gorges go on and on and are truly remarkable. They are interspersed with flatter, calmer sections of the Areuse river, often with a series of small dams and a hydropower plant. We saw one biggish fish in a pool below a waterfall, but as in all of Switzerland, all of the dams must seriously impede normal migration and populations.

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We eventually popped out in the town of Boudry, just down the lake from Neuchâtel. Note to the wise, trains only go from the Boudry station once an hour. We found this out after trekking up to the station and realizing that the train had left approximately nine minutes before we got there… oops. Down on the other side of town, on the lake, is a tram that leads into Neuchâtel and leaves every 20 minutes. Eventually we made it back to Neuchâtel and back to Zürich, very very tired. My Garmin had clocked about 16 k before it crapped out and lost satellite reception in the lower gorges.

The whole experience, from the lofty Creux du Van down into the claustrophobic and beautiful gorges, was incredible. It’s a strange corner of Switzerland, but we were very glad that we forsake (forsook?) the high mountains for the Jura and got to see this. It’s very unique and as tired as I was, I was also buoyant from the energy I gained from the mountain circ.

new paper.

•May 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

A new paper I co-authored with my masters supervisor Juha Alatalo is out in Scientific Reports (he’s the first author, but my day is coming soon! stay tuned in the next few months!). It’s called “Vascular plant abundance and diversity in an alpine heath under observed and simulated global change.” Because SR is open access, you can read it! Click here for the PDF.

It’s based on an old dataset from Latnjajaure, Sweden, which I analyzed as part of a 15-credit “research training” course in my masters. I only later had the chance to spend a few weeks at the Latnja field station, and it was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ll ever have the chance to do fieldwork. Getting this email that the paper was published made me think back on my summer experience there! Here’s a few photos to get you in the mood.

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a real vacation.

•May 1, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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Slideshow at the bottom of the post.

For the first time in…. years?… I took an actual vacation to a warm place. Not a vacation so that I could ski, not a “vacation” so that I could work for FasterSkier, not a “vacation” so that I could go to a conference or summer school and just tack on an extra day for exploring at the end. Nope, this was an honest-to-God vacation, a reward to myself for making it through the first six months of my PhD and passing my first committee meeting.

I flew to Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. It was a real vacation where I could sleep until 12 if I wanted, stay up late if I wanted, go lie on the beach and be useless if I wanted (although I did read a great book, The Orchardist, so it wasn’t totally useless). I ate a lot of seafood, which is something I don’t do here in Zürich for obvious reasons given our lack of proximity to the sea; I got sunburned and suntanned. I tried to use my small amount of Spanish, but got tripped up by the very different pronunciation in Spain from Mexican Spanish… since I don’t speak much anyway, that proved to be the killer stroke.

It never would have occurred to me to go to the Canary Islands, to be honest, since they seem far away, and they are. It’s almost 2000 miles from Zurich. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not far (certainly not as far as it is from the U.S.!). Flights aren’t insanely expensive, and things in Spain are a lot cheaper than things in Switzerland. Crazily enough, with where I’m based right now it was a relatively affordable vacation – and when you can go somewhere completely unexpected, why not? We get in ruts sometimes in going to the same type of place over and over again. I broke my own cycle. I bought a shirtdress from H&M, a running hat from Adidas because I seem to have left my beloved RMBL trucker hat in New Hampshire, packed my bags, and hopped on an Iberia flight in Zurich.

Later that day, I was in an apartment overlooking the rocky shoreline of the Atlantic. The next morning I slept almost til noon with the sounds of the waves crashing in the background.

Being me, of course the relaxing vacation also included quite a bit of hiking. It was hiking that didn’t involve waking up at the ass-crack of dawn, though. Tenerife is a beautiful island and a volcano, Teide, that is over 12,000 feet tall and last erupted in 1909. It turns out that if you want to hike to the top of the volcano, you need to get a permit in advance; by the time I realized this, all the permits were booked for the next three weeks. So I didn’t go there. But there’s a big national part around the volcano with a very arid, Martian-seeming landscape. It reminded me of parts of the American West. I hiked another mountain, Guajara, across the big caldera, and the view across to Teide were amazing – it was also a quiet hike, and maybe actually nicer than the volcano itself. A perfect place for lunch on top.

Another great mountain range to explore is the Anaga mountains in the northeast of the island. Unlike the recently-disturbed volcano in the center of the islands, the Anagas are very old, and they feel like it. Incredibly steep and jagged, they are covered in temperate vegetation even though the ground seems bone-dry. Farming villages with terraced agriculture are scattered throughout; some farms are only accessible by trail, with the houses built into the hillside itself, just a door and maybe one window to tell you someone is living there. The driving is interesting to say the least, but the views are spectacular.

There’s also lots of canyons, or Barrancos, all around the island leading from the volcanic highlands down to the coast. A few are famous and full of tourists; there are many more that are beautiful and more quiet.

Tenerife is a paradise of different ecosystems, vegetations, and geologies. I wish I had read more about the geologic history before going! But if you’re not up for being so active, there are also plenty of beautiful beaches to lie on, local wine and produce to check out, and fish to eat. I can recommend a great AirBnB apartment in a small town, Icod de los Vinos, on the northern coast.

Right now I’m back to fieldwork for me PhD, but the chance to get away and relax was truly special. As my life changes towards being a bit more grown up – in Switzerland even PhD students are given vacation time – I’m realizing that even if I only made one “vacation” trip a year, of one week each, for the rest of my life, there are so many different parts of the world I could see! That’s an exciting prospect. So much of my travel the last few years has been a long weekend trip here or there within Europe. Those are great trips, but you’re limited in how far you can go on a long weekend. There’s more out there to see and as I start to have jobs with actual benefits, instead of being just a masters student, I will have the opportunity to see them. That’s exciting.

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foxspotting.

•April 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment

A week ago I was walking home late at night after catching the last tram from the central station. I had been at a friend’s house playing board games, talking science, and mulling over the ideal level of involvement by a PhD supervisor. We drank quite a bit of red wine.

As I padded up Restelbergstrasse, what I thought was a large cat walked across the road. Then it lay down in the grass between the street and a parking lot.

It wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. There were two of them: one stood on the far side of the parking lot, its dark coat almost completely blending in to the inky night. Without the nearby street lamp to partially illuminate the parking lot, I might not have noticed it.

A week ago I was walking home late at night after catching the last tram from the central station. I had been at a friend’s house playing board games, talking science, and mulling over the ideal level of involvement by a PhD supervisor. We drank quite a bit of red wine.

As I padded up Restelbergstrasse, what I thought was a large cat walked across the road. Then it lay down in the grass between the street and a parking lot.

It wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. There were two of them: one stood on the far side of the parking lot, its dark coat almost completely blending in to the inky night. Without the nearby street lamp to partially illuminate the parking lot, I might not have noticed it.

I watched the lying-down fox for a moment, then slowly reached to pull out my phone. I wanted to take a picture of this wildlife in my neighborhood. But my hand movement was too disruptive, and the fox hopped up, turned around, and jogged to the other side of the parking lot. From there it watched me.

I stood for five minutes on the sidewalk, looking across the parking lot at this fox. We stared each other down. Mentally I willed it to come closer, but no surprise, the fox was stronger. As the bell in the square rang 12:30, I walked up the street and home to my bed.

The larger Zurich metropolitan area has over a million people, and I thought it was very cool that I had seen foxes just trotting in between people’s houses, through their yards, past their driveways. There are many foxes around our farm in New Hampshire, but we rarely see them. It seems notable when you do.

But after a bit of research, I found that my experience wasn’t unique at all.

“The urban fox population is on the rise in Switzerland,” SwissInfo reported in 2011, complete with adorable pictures of foxes in yards. As of that writing, there were about 1,200 foxes in Zurich.

Shows what I know, as a country bumpkin: I thought that wildlife belonged to rural areas. Sure, there’s lots of birds and biodiversity even in urban areas, but foxes?

In 2002, a PhD student from my department wrote a five-manuscript dissertation about the foxes of Zurich. You can skim the whole thing here. It’s fascinating: it appears that there is a clear separation between urban and rural foxes, even when foxes living in rural settings on the outskirts of Zurich could easily shift their ranges into the city. In Zurich, as of 2002, Sandra Gloor found a density of ~10-11 foxes per square kilometer. To avoid contact with humans (i.e., me walking home drunk at night), the foxes used urban parks and cemeteries mostly during the early part of the night, then ventured into residential neighborhoods in the second half of the night, when people were more scarce; during the day, the rest in parks, cemeteries, and fallow land on the outskirts of the city.

Foxes only moved into the city proper in the mid-80s in any large numbers. It’s a phenomenon that has happened all over the world: London has more than 10,000 urban foxes and a significant amount of human-fox conflict.

I like our Zurich foxes, though. It reminds me that wherever you go, there’s a little more nature than you might suspect, and that animals are highly adaptable.

(P.S. Are you a fan of foxes? Check out my friend Jean’s artwork at WildLines Studio, and you can buy beautiful prints like this one of a jumping red fox.)

 
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